This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
Thousands of Iraqis have gathered at two locations in central Baghdad after a prominent Shi’ite cleric called for a “million-strong” protest against the U.S. military presence in the country.
The march was called by Muqtada al-Sadr, who has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran.
Marchers started gathering early in the day at Hurriya Square in central Baghdad and near the city’s main university. Marchers avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass anti-government protests.
Men and women marched waving Iraqi flags and chanting slogans against the United States, which leads a military coalition against the Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
Witnesses said the marchers were protected by Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam brigades and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.
Main roads in Baghdad were barricaded by security forces and the city’s Green Zone, which houses foreign missions, was blocked off with concrete barriers.
On January 5, Iraq’s parliament passed a resolution calling for foreign troops to leave the country in the wake of a U.S. air strike that killed a top Iranian military commander, Qasem Soleimani, near Baghdad on January 3.
However, following a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and his Iraqi counterpart, Barham Salih, on January 22 on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the White House said the two sides agreed on the need for the U.S. military to maintain its presence in the Middle Eastern country.
Many anti-government protesters in Iraq fear the rallies against the U.S. military presence could overshadow their separate, months-long demonstrations that have challenged Iran-backed Shi’ite groups’ grip on power.